By Mike Ambs, August 17th, 2009

I just finished watching a really inspiring video, twittered by Zak Forsman, of Nina Paley at the Phily DIY Days meet-up, that I mentioned recently, presenting the revenue results for her Creative Commons free-distribution approach. Yep, that’s right, she has made money by giving her film away for free.

My favorite part of her presentation was early on when she defined “free” as having more than one meaning: there’s the free as in “free beer”, and there’s the free as in “free speech”.

Nina released her animated film, Sita Sings the Blues, five months ago under a Creative Commons Share Alike license. Now this site, has for several years, published under a Creative Commons Noncommercial Share Alike license, and that license applies to all the content we post here; the episodes, the teasers, the production updates, etc (unless specifically said otherwise).

What these licenses mean is pretty simple and straight forward; under both, people are free to share your work – this includes downloading it, making copies, uploading it to a bit-torrent site, etc… any means of sharing are allowed! They are even allowed to make changes to your work – in a film’s case, they could re-edit or re-mix scenes – as long as they released that modified work under the same license.

But what you can’t do under our project’s current license, that you are allowed (and encouraged) to do under Nina’s is sell the content. It’s not even required that you cut a percentage of the profits with the person who created the work. Although, in most professional cases, that person or organization does share their profit.

She brings up a specific example of this in the video, a Film Festival downloaded her film, put it in their schedule, and sent her a short email afterward saying something along the lines of, “hey, we put your film in our fest’. We’ll send you a check in a few weeks”. Her film played there, did very well, and she received a check for a few thousand dollars.

That is how film distribution should work! It’s not there yet, but people like Nina are working very hard to prove that it is a viable option for both filmmakers and theaters. It’s really inspiring and encouraging to see this model working, and working so well, even in it’s early stages of approach.

The way in which Nina makes most of her money is through selling “containers”, more specifically: DVDs and merchandise. This has been a hard sell for other filmmakers and distributors, a huge majority are still hard-pressed to understand that just because someone can stream or download a film for free, doesn’t mean they will not pay for it.

The more people that see Sita Sings the Blues… the more festivals it plays in… the more people who watch it online – enjoy it – and suggest it to a few friends… the more word of mouth: the more DVDs Nina sells. It’s as simple as that.

The distribution of FToM has always been something I knew would have to be different – it’s just not a film that is designed to be played in theaters all across the US. It’s not a blockbuster, or a sleeper hit, or fun for the whole family. And I’m okay with that. I’m going to plan according for it, which means I won’t be submitting to all the major film fest’ with the hopes of being picked up. I’ll still submit, but I won’t be holding my breath.

FToM is guaranteed to do far, far better with a release approach similar to Nina’s. And honestly, whether the film is more or less likely to be successful under this model is besides the point – I want to help push this form of distribution forward. I think it’s important.

I think as more and more theaters upgrade their projection equipment to include digital, the more they tap into the internet, the more unavoidable it is to see organizations and companies come forward and help showcase film’s with Creative Commons licenses. Most likely using something close to an on-demand / streaming / bit-torrent approach.

And that, to me, sounds like a very, very good thing.

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Posted in For Thousands of Miles

Mike Ambs currently lives in Ypsilanti. He loves to film things and tell stories. And read on the subway. He's pretty sure blue whales are his power animal.

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